Sorry to tell you, Toto

But you’re not in Kansas anymore.

So Time magazine published a “humor” piece by Joel Stein lamenting the changes that have befallen his hometown of Edison, N.J.  Specifically, too many Asian Indians have moved in.  Guess they must be changing the complexion a little bit too much.

Basically, what Stein did was vomit up every stereotype he could think of.  The sheer number is testament to the racism in our society.  And it’s not like we haven’t seen it before.

Anna of Sepia Mutiny covers it here.

Time magazine gave Stein a huge, national (international?) audience upon which to spew.  And in so doing, it chose to inform its audience just what Asian Indians are like.  Additionally, it provided license for people to laugh at a group of people.  Because when people don’t get out much, these kinds of images and derogatory speech fill in the space where real knowledge is supposed to be.

But that actually isn’t what struck me the most about Stein’s piece. 

Stein left Edison twenty-one years ago.  Yet he still considers it his town.  When he departed, the Asian Indian population was around six or seven percent (1990 census).   According to the 2000 Census, Asian Indians were 17.2 percent of the population.  The 2010 estimate is 25 percent.

“My town is totally unfamiliar to me,” he wrote.  The “mostly white” town of his memory is gone.

(Um, Joel, you do realize that you could have stayed and fought to keep it mostly white, don’t you?  But you know what they call those sorts of people.)

The piece is supposed to be about immigration.  But it’s really about racism and privilege.

It’s the privilege behind the sentiment Take back our country!

It’s the privilege behind writing a piece where the audience was envisioned as white.

And it’s the privilege behind somebody who doesn’t remember the New Jersey “dotbuster” crimes.

In the article, Stein wrote:

Eventually, there were enough Indians in Edison to change the culture. At which point my townsfolk started calling the new Edisonians “dot heads.” One kid I knew in high school drove down an Indian-dense street yelling for its residents to “go home to India.” In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if “dot heads” was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.

Apparently just seven percent of the population was enough to “change the culture.”  To an openly racist one.

Despite what we are told about “sticks and stones,” words can harm us.

You know, like calling people a racist name or making fun of their culture or religion or telling them to go back to their country.  Because obviously they don’t belong to your country, which you have identified as belonging to white people.  Or your town, which they make unfamiliar and scary.  The dehumanization of human beings enables and supports an environment that is conducive to hate crime.

A violent hate crime is typically preceded by hate speech.  In New Jersey, those attacks were brutal and included murder.

I question how good the schools were if they didn’t educate students about racism.

Because privilege is about not having to fear being spat upon, or being called racial slurs, or being beaten with a pipe, or having your sari yanked off.  Or being murdered because of the color of your skin.

Privilege is about not having to remember that history.  Privilege is not having to care.

Privilege is the ability to write a “humor” piece that contributes to an environment hostile to people of color and have it published in a national magazine.

And privilege is about lousy apologies and not having to acknowledge the racist system you support.  From Stein’s Twitter:

Didn’t meant to insult Indians with my column this week. Also stupidly assumed their emails would follow that Gandhi non-violence thing

(Just to make it clear:  The column was an insult to everybody.  Whether they know it or not.)

Later, appended to the article:

TIME responds: We sincerely regret that any of our readers were upset by Joel Stein’s recent humor column “My Own Private India.” It was in no way intended to cause offense.

Racismese translation:  Nobody here thought twice about it.  Because it didn’t offend us, we were shocked! Shocked I tell you! to find that it was maybe offensive.

And Stein’s response:

Joel Stein responds: I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it. If we could understand that reaction, we’d be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue.

Well, the reaction you had is hard to understand, I’ll grant you that.   Even though it’s not at all uncommon, and xenophobia and privilege and racism seem to be omnipresent in discussions about immigration.  But it’s so hard to talk about the r-word.  Despite the fact that a judge has ruled that the word “racist” has lost its edge, nobody seems to have gotten the memo.

We’re not in Kansas anymore.  Nor did we want to be.  Because we’re taking back our country.  Booya!


It also appears that Indians have achieved the dubious honor of a “ching chong” font of their very own, thanks to John Ueland:

7 thoughts on “Sorry to tell you, Toto

  1. God, that column made me sick. And for over an hour, I ended up debating why it was racist and xenophobic with a girl from Jersey who said immigration “destroyed” communities from “what they were.”
    Towns change, folks. Get over it. People move in, people move out, and we move on. You’re not funny, Joel Stein. Go away, please.

  2. I sincerely hope you have sent this blogpost to Time Magazine as a Letter to the Editor.

    I wish I had anything else useful to say, but what keeps coming up is just so much disgust. Is this the Time Magazine my Dad always enjoyed so much? Is this why I just quietly fell away from reading it?

  3. I was about to rip into Stein here for the article, after just reading quotes from it both here and on a couple of other sites… then I remembered the golden rule, READ BEFORE YOU WRITE! After finding the full piece and reading it in its entirety, MOST of the comments that sound so awful separately have none of the harshness to them in the context of the article. Unfortunately for Mr. Stein, there are a couple of places where he sounds like a complete ass, and yeah — the apologies from both TIME and Joel were completely warranted and definitely necessary. Having said that though, look at both sides here folks. I highly doubt Stein is the enemy to those of us fighting racism… he’s probably more of an ally, even more so after this accidental misstep. So let’s keep focused on the true villains out there, and move on. Yeah, this was dumb, but in the larger context, we have more important things to attend to than someone who obviously MEANT one thing but in a few places SAID another. [WHIB #10]

  4. Y’know, his final ‘response’ actually makes it worse, since he was apparently trying to confront his own racism and failed miserably. Who among us hasn’t looked at ourselves in the mirror and wondered why we reacted a certain way? Asked ourselves if we reacted because of some deeply (or maybe not so deeply) buried racism? We live in a racist society, folks, and we can’t avoid absorbing some of those attitudes. We have to face it and deal with it before we can truly move forward.

    To give him credit, he was trying to face his own racism, on paper at least, and all he managed to do was reveal that despite his ‘good’ intentions, he is perfectly happy to revel and even wallow in his own racism. Joel Stein Fail.

    Oh, and Hollywood, Stein is part of the problem as much as the more overt racists are. Just because he is ‘more of an ally’ does not excuse his own deeply rooted feelings and the harm they can cause, both to the people of his hometown and those who will read this article and not realize it was meant as ‘humor’ and instead take strength from having ‘someone in power’ agree with them.

  5. Solitary, I agree with you to an extent on the point about the potential problem —

    “both to the people of his hometown and those who will read this article and not realize it was meant as ‘humor’ and instead take strength from having ‘someone in power’ agree with them.”

    Especially for anyone who read the comments and did not read his response or glazed over his own insults which I mention below.

    But as for not excusing his own deeply rooted feelings and the harm they can cause, it’s not the FEELINGS that cause the harm, it’s less than stellar way he tried to deal with them. He’s trying to work through them obviously, which is good, that’s exactly what needs to happen with rational people (read: people for whom there is HOPE that one day they may actually NOT be racist). Recognize it’s not right, step back, work to figure it out. The guy was ripping on his own peeps in the article as well, which, to your point about people thinking they have someone in power to agree with them, well… I doubt those folks were agreeing with his comments that ripped on the white folks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s